It was after 10p.m. last Oct. 14, in a cramped room under the stands at Jordan-Hare Stadium.The "rolling" of Toomer's Corner was under way, transforming the mainintersection of Auburn, Ala., into a blizzard of bathroom tissue. That customdoubled, on this night, as a cruel reminder to the Florida Gators that theirhopes of playing in the BCS title game had just gone swirling down a figurativecommode. Or so it seemed. Florida had just lost 27--17 to an Auburn squad thathad held quarterback Chris Leak to 108 passing yards and forced him into a pairof ghastly turnovers. Now Urban Meyer, the Gators' second-year coach, stoodbefore a roomful of reporters who wondered if he was going to throw his seniorquarterback under the bus. Leak's interception with three minutes left had beenespecially catastrophic. Wideout Andre Caldwell had beaten his man soundly on ago route, but Leak's badly underthrown ball had been picked off by strongsafety Eric Brock. A reporter to Meyer's left asked--indeed, baited--the coach:How could a four-year starter make such a mistake?
The scribe, itbears noting, was clad in that sartorial staple of sportswriters: a windbreakerfrom a charity golf event. This one commemorated the STEVE SPURRIER SCRAMBLEFOR KIDS--a reminder that, regardless of his popularity around Gainesville,Meyer labors in the shadow of a legend.
It was Spurrier,now the coach at South Carolina, who led the Gators to their last nationaltitle, in 1996. In addition to his many positive attributes, the Ol' Ball Coachwas not above hanging his players out to dry after a loss. Meyer wasn't goingthere. "If you're looking for someone to point fingers," he toldWindbreaker, "you're talking to the wrong guy."
While capable ofrunning for first downs, Leak was much more comfortable as a drop-back passer.He seemed the wrong guy to run the spread-option offense Meyer brought with himfrom Utah after the '04 season. That, at least, was the buzz aroundGainesville. To allay his quarterback's anxieties, Meyer started inviting Leakto his house not long after he was hired. The two would have refreshments andwatch game tape. They would bond. That, at least, was the idea. As it turnedout, coach and player stared straight ahead while enduring excruciatingly longsilences.
January 8, 2007
"When I sayhe didn't say a word," Meyer recalls, "I mean he didn't say aword."
Part of thatcould be chalked up to the natural reticence of Leak, whose default mode is ameditative silence easily mistaken by those who don't know him for catatonia.And part of it was what Meyer calls "a lack of trust. He didn't know who wewere. All he knew was that he was playing for his third offensive coordinatorin three years, and that everybody was saying he wouldn't fit thesystem."
Of course Leakwas leery of the new guy, just as he was ill-suited for the spread option.Florida earned a spot against Ohio State in the BCS national championship gamethis Monday night because the two men have bridged the gulf that separated themin those first, awkward meetings.
To paraphrase arecently sacked secretary of defense, you play the games with the quarterbackyou have, not the quarterback you might wish you have. Meyer has been smartenough to mold his system to better suit the strengths of Leak. What mightthose be? "I'm not a running back," the quarterback proclaimed lastyear, in an oration that, coming from Leak, qualified as a soliloquy."Managing the offense ... putting my team in position to score ... throwingthe ball downfield. That's what I do best."
A proud youngman, he has graciously and humbly ceded snaps to highly touted freshman TimTebow, the darling of Florida fans, whom Meyer has deployed--often to greateffect--as a single-wing-style, direct-snap tailback.
At Meyer'surging, Leak has also emerged from his shell to become a better teammate andmore effective leader. Shortly after he was hired, Meyer recalls, "otherplayers would tell me they never saw Chris unless it was at practice. He's oneof the guys now. I think that's really important."
Leak has notalways had such mastery over his emotions. His father, Curtis, coached Chris'syouth football team in Charlotte and benched his son several times forintemperate behavior. Once, Chris got the hook for slamming down his helmet.Another time, recalls his older brother, C.J., Chris and a friend were"making up their own defenses on the field. He got benched forthat."
A talentedquarterback in his own right, C.J. signed with Wake Forest in 1999 buttransferred to Tennessee after two seasons. When Casey Clausen was sidelinedwith an injury in October 2002, C.J. got the start against Georgia. He waspulled after two three-and-outs. At the time, Chris was a senior at Charlotte'sIndependence High, busy leading the Patriots to their third straight NorthCarolina state title. The Vols were at the top of his list, but coach PhilFulmer's treatment of his brother--which the Leaks saw as shabby--drove Chrisaway.
At halftime of ahigh school all-star game in January 2003, Leak donned an orange and blue ballcap and professed his allegiance "to Ron Zook and the University ofFlorida." He was young and confident and went on to write checks with hismouth that his arm never did cover, grandly predicting multiple SEC andnational championships. Leak won six of his nine starts as a freshman in '03and directed an offense that averaged 35.1 points through the first seven gamesof '04. That seventh game, alas, was a 38--31 upset loss at MississippiState--the Gators' 13th defeat in less than three seasons under Zook, who wasfired with four games left.
The hottest namein coaching circles that fall was Meyer, a dashing 40-year-old with a fertilemind and formidable pedigree. Born in Ashtabula, Ohio, Meyer played defensiveback at Cincinnati before catching on as a graduate assistant at Ohio State in1986. He was 22, ambitious and sharp. He was going down. On the first day ofpractice coach Earle Bruce barked, "Give me a four technique." Theeager grad assistant put a blocking dummy directly over the tackle--just as itsaid under "four technique" in the playbook he'd painstakinglymemorized. In Bruce's mind, however, the bag belonged on the tackle's insideshoulder. "He started cursing and screaming at me," recalls Meyer.
Over time Brucebecame a friend and mentor, and Meyer followed him to Colorado State in 1990.Two years later the Rams fired Bruce and hired Sonny Lubick, who had nointention of retaining Meyer until he sat down across from the gimlet-eyedyoung man. "You might not know me now," Lubick recalls him saying,"but you'll never be sorry if you keep me on."
Meyer spent threeseasons with Lubick, whose most lasting influence on him is best boiled down totwo words: lighten up. Meyer was a graduate of the Woody Hayes--Earle Bruceschool of fire and brimstone coaching--"I never knew it could be doneanother way," he says--but Lubick showed him, as the older coach put it,"You catch more flies with honey than vinegar."
Meyer becameadept at dispensing both, as the need arose. His meteoric rise through theprofession--he engineered dramatic turnarounds as the coach at Bowling Green,then Utah--has been marked by stout defense, cutting-edge offense and atough-love approach toward his players. To walk with him through the corridoroutside the Gators' locker room is to have your conversation repeatedlyinterrupted as he conducts exchanges with every player who goes by:
"Did you runtoday?" he asks center Steve Rissler.
"Is it T orJ?" he asks safety Tony (TJ) Joiner.
"It's T,"replies Joiner.
"I don'tcare," says the coach. Both walk away smiling.
Before castinghis lot with Florida, Meyer walked away from what appeared to be his dream job.Zook's firing preceded by five weeks the dismissal of Ty Willingham at NotreDame. It was widely assumed that Meyer--a devout Catholic named for a pope, forPete's sake; a guy who'd put in five seasons as an assistant in SouthBend--would jump at the job if it were offered. Yet Meyer left the Irish at thealtar.
Even before hearrived in Gainesville, Meyer heard good things about Leak's work ethic. Thequarterback was renowned for his long hours in the film room. But the new coachdidn't want Leak spending hours in a dark room by himself. "Get somereceivers around you!" he would tell Leak. "Help others while you helpyourself!"
It was part of abroader campaign to draw Leak out of his shell. Meyer didn't want a lone wolfrunning his offense, he wanted a field general. Under Zook, remarkably, Leakcould go through an entire game without making a single call at the line.
"We wanted totake as much off his shoulders as we could," recalls Larry Fedora, whoserved on Zook's staff as running game coordinator, then offensive coordinator.From his press-box perch, Fedora would read the defense, then relay an audibleto a coach on the sideline. That coach would signal in the play. Changing theprotection was the job of the center. Even the snap count was silent: All Leakdid was lift his leg.
None of that wasgoing to cut it under Meyer. Leak would change the protections and handle theaudibles or he would finish out his college career on the bench.
While the offensehit some rough patches this season, it has improved markedly since '05. Much ofthat is the result of Leak's willingness to accept the added responsibilitythrust on him by Meyer. "Coach got Chris to open up and not try to handleeverything on his own," says Caldwell. "Tebow's a great spark. But weall know whose team this is."
And much of theGators' improvement has to do with Meyer's resourcefulness; his willingness,every so often, to live dangerously. Can't field a healthy tailback? Noproblem: Convert your quarterback of the future, the 6'3", 229-pound Tebow,into a short-yardage back. Or hand the ball to Percy Harvin, the scintillatingfreshman wideout who took an inside handoff and dashed 67 yards for a touchdownin the 38--28 SEC title-game win over Arkansas.
Whether pullingoff a fake punt on fourth-and-10 from their own 15 while trailing theRazorbacks by four in the third quarter, or blocking a field goal to secure aone-point victory over Spurrier and South Carolina, these Gators have foundways to win. They call to mind Ohio State's 2002 team, which sometimes wonugly, but always won.
That squad wascoached by Jim Tressel in just his second season with the Buckeyes. It was ledby Craig Krenzel, a steady, but unspectacular quarterback. Heavy underdogs todynastic Miami, the Buckeyes upset the Hurricanes in double overtime for thenational championship.
Four years latercan another seasoned quarterback and another coach in his second year with aprogram pull off a similar upset? Nothing would surprise Lubick, who in theiryears together at Colorado State had struggled against Meyer in golf. Then camethat fateful day. "I was four strokes up on him with one hole to play,"says Lubick, wistfully. "It was going to be the first time I ever beathim." His voice trails off.
"I startedthinking about how much fun it was going to be razzing him," he says."But he got into my head. I can't believe it, but he beat me. He found away to beat me."
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Leak was a lone wolf, but "Coach got Chris to openup and not try to handle EVERYTHING ON HIS OWN," says Caldwell.